Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

A Word in Time

Talk one of five on the ethics of speech

We speak a lot, some would say too much. There is a constant flow of words all around us; the spoken word in conversation, on radio and TV, at meetings of all kinds and the written word in books, newspapers, magazines, e-mails, faxes, letters and so on. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who spoke of someone being overwhelmed by the ‘exuberance of his own verbosity’. We could adapt his phrase to say the whole world is overwhelmed with an exuberance of verbosity. And what is it all about? What is being communicated with this deluge of words? Much of it is telling us what to think, what to wear, what to eat, what to read, what we should look like and what will make us happy. Much of it is trying to persuade us of one thing or another – who to vote for, what to buy. And much of it amounts to the empty prattle of radio DJs or the equally empty content of huge swathes of the mass media. And what is spoken and written in the world around us enters into our own consciousness and becomes the content of our own conversation too. The banality of most verbal communication is not a new thing, it is just the vast quantity available to us that’s new. But verbal communication will always be as mediocre or as profound as the hearts and minds that provide its content and expression. In Buddhism this has been recognised and, as well as precepts for speech, there are precepts for the mind. Not the least of these is the precept which is worded ‘I undertake the training principle that consists in abstention from wrong views’. Wrong views are those which are not conducive to the spiritual growth and development of the individual in the direction of Buddhahood. They consist of such views as belief in a soul or self that is fixed and unchanging, belief in an all-powerful creator god, denying that actions have consequences, denying that life has any meaning beyond the material and mundane and not believing in one’s own potential for spiritual Enlightenment. So, as well as trying to be more ethical in our speech, we are exhorted to give up wrong views. After all, our speech gives expression to our views and beliefs, which we so strongly identify with. So strongly that it could be said that we are our views. So giving up wrong views means a radical and far-reaching change to our whole being, it’s not just as simple as changing to a new product brand or a new political alliance. As we gradually give up wrong views and change in the depths of our hearts, our actions and our speech are naturally affected and become more and more conducive to spiritual growth, that is more and more ethical. What is ethical is conducive to spiritual well-being. The term used in Buddhism for the ethical is kusala, which is usually translated as ‘skilful’. This indicates that in Buddhism ethics is not so much a matter of obedience to pre-ordained rules of right and wrong but more a matter of the intelligent application of principles to our actions, speech and thoughts. In terms of our actions, the principles are non-violence, generosity and contentment. In terms of our speech, the principles are truthfulness, kindliness, helpfulness and harmony and in terms of the mind, the basic principles are generosity, compassion and wisdom. These principles then have to be intelligently applied to the particular situations and circumstances of life. The ability to apply these principles becomes easier and more spontaneous as we gradually purify our hearts and minds of the basic unspiritual trends towards greed, ill-will and wrong views. So initially, and for quite a long time, our application of the principles enshrined in the speech precepts is more a matter of discipline and effort than a spontaneous expression of spiritual purity. I am going to take a closer look at all four of the speech precepts and try to draw out the importance of each one and the spirit behind it. But before I do that, I want to address another principle that applies to the skilful use of verbal communication. That is the principle of timely or seasonable speech. This applies to all the speech precepts. We need to be appropriate. For instance, it may not be appropriate to blurt out something even though it is the truth. The time may not be right and it could cause harm and suffering. Or if someone is feeling very inflated and big-headed, it may not be the right time to sing their praises. Or if two people are at the height of an impassioned row, attempts to create a premature harmony could be out of place. Or trying to cheer someone up may not be appropriate if they have just suffered some terrible loss or bereavement. This does not mean that we should be untruthful or unhelpful. What it means is that in all our communications we need above all to try to be sensitive to the other person. Communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum, we are always communicating with somebody, whether in conversation or giving a talk or writing an article. There is always an audience. Otherwise there is no communication. To be sensitive to others we need to be aware of them. Some forms of communication are probably less conducive to awareness than others. For instance, sometimes one can use e-mail so quickly that it’s possible to fire off an insensitive or ill-thought message almost without noticing. Also, telephone communication is difficult because we cannot see the facial expression and body language of the other person. Any very important or emotionally charged communication is best not attempted by telephone. Whatever method we are using to communicate we need to bring in as much awareness of the other person, of our audience, as possible. Being aware in communication means listening. This seems very obvious, but it is by no means a common practice. That is why, in spite of the torrent of words around us, there is in fact very little communication. Listening is the other half of communication. Actually, I personally think that listening is more than half of communication because without the awareness that comes from proper listening, what we say or write is going to be that much less of a communication. Listening obviously means being attentive to the content of what someone is saying, but it also means being attentive to the tone of voice, the emotional atmosphere, facial expression, body language and our own emotional responses. If we listen in this way, then our conversation can go deeper and become more meaningful and be altogether more satisfying. Otherwise conversation can become boring, banal or irksome. And, of course, by listening we gain the sensitivity to be appropriate in our communication, to practise timely or seasonable speech. As well as being aware of the other person by listening to them, we need to be aware of circumstances and environment. For example, if someone is very distressed it may not be appropriate to take them to a noisy café to talk about it. Or if we happen to be talking in a noisy café or the equivalent and something arises in conversation that clearly demands more serious attention, it would be better to leave than make the communication more painful or less helpful by having to battle with extraneous distractions and interruptions. In order to listen we need to be quiet. Silence is as important to communication as speech. In silence we find the spaciousness for that awareness to arise which will enable our speech to be more appropriate and, therefore, more skilful. Silence is the fertile soil in which we cultivate skilful speech. And it’s not just our tongues that need to fall silent, but also our chattering and calculating minds. Sometimes people appear to be listening, appear to be silent, but all the time they are weighing up and working out what they are going to say next. When two people do this in conversation there is very little dialogue, more like a monologue a deux. Silence can feel uncomfortable because in silence we become aware of emotions and many people are uncomfortable with their emotions, whether of love, fear, anger or desire. But for this very reason, silence is also a fertile soil for the growth of self-knowledge, and self-knowledge or self-awareness can help us to be more aware of others, more sensitive and more appropriate in our speech. There is an image in Tibetan Buddhism of the great teacher and sage Milarepa. He is depicted seated on a mountainside with his right hand cupped to his ear, listening intently. He is listening to the song of the Dharma. He is supremely receptive to the Wisdom of the Dharma. Perhaps this image of Milarepa could be a symbol for us of the importance of listening and the beautiful songs of Milarepa a reminder of the appropriateness of speech that can come from that listening. Reading can seem a very passive activity. The writer does all the talking, as it were, and we just listen. But in reading we need not be passive, in fact, we ought not to be passive. We ought to be aware of our responses. We ought to notice the emotions and thoughts that arise in us as we read. This makes for a more full interaction with the writer and we may even be moved to write our own response. The great artists, writers and philosophers can carry on this kind of dialogue over periods of centuries. I’m thinking of Blake’s response to Milton, Schopenhauer’s to Kant, Coleridge to Shakespeare. Or the great literary biographers Peter Ackroyd and Richard Holmes and their affectionate, imaginative and immediate relationship with Dickens and Shelley and Coleridge. It is possible to engage very actively with what we read and in doing so to learn about ourselves and even to change and modify our character for the better.